By Diane Cole

A+ Schools for B Students: First-rate Colleges Not as Selective as the Top Universities

When Aaron Krilov-Egbert started thinking about college toward the close of his junior year at New York's Brooklyn Tech high school, he felt dejected. Although he'd done well on his SATs, his solid C average wasn't going to impress anyone, he says. "It was definitely worrisome whether I would find a school I could get into that I'd like."

He was still uncertain when his guidance counselor urged him to research the network of campuses that make up the City University of New York - CUNY. Then he clicked on their websites and started visiting the schools themselves.

"It was eye-opening," he says. "Getting in definitely seemed possible." This fall, he will enter his junior year at CUNY Hunter College.

He's majoring in English and earning mostly A's. Oh, yes, and he's happy there. "I love this place," he says.

It's an example that all high school students with uneven academic profiles or uncertain visions of their future can take to heart. And it embodies a truth that college applicants all too often forget: Beyond the small roster of nationally renowned schools lie many that aren't household names but have first-rate programs and strong reputations. For the fifth year, U.S. News has screened the schools it ranks to identify high-quality institutions where average students have a decent shot at being accepted.

Keeping hope afloat might be the hardest hurdle for worried students to overcome, but it shouldn't be. Consider a simple, encouraging statistic: "Our data show that four-year colleges on average accept about 7 out of 10 students who apply," says David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association of College Admission Counseling. "That means that even if grades don't qualify a student for the most selective colleges, there are a host of places out there."

Missy Sanchez, director of college counseling at Atlanta's Woodward Academy, agrees.

"That B average gets you into a lot of good schools, and with a C average you still have a lot to offer colleges," she says. "B students are the backbone of most colleges, and they should not at all feel ashamed of their grades."

Twinkle, twinkle. Stephanie Hart, an independent college consultant in Kansas City, Mo., worked with a bright but academically disengaged student who was "bored and just going through the motions" until she found out about Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., a small liberal arts school that combines academics with work experience and community service. "She had a definite twinkle in her eye when she was accepted," says Hart. One lesson from this student's experience: More than likely, there'll be at least one school that seems like an excellent fit for you. So make no assumptions that the ones your friends liked -- or dissed -- will strike you the same way. Go online, visit campuses, attend open houses, and talk to admissions officers and guidance counselors about your options.

Like Krilov-Egbert, you may fear that putting off thinking about college until junior year or beyond will spell doom for your college plans. But that's not the case. "Kids who are in their junior year thinking that they haven't done their best may feel doors are closed, and some may be," says Shirley A. Bloomquist, an independent college counselor in Northern Virginia.

"But not all doors are closed, and students can begin wherever they are in high school to strengthen their academic record and demonstrate they're engaged in learning."

Beyond the numbers. Grades count, but that's not all that matters, especially once you get past the superselective schools.

"We look at the academics, but we also go beyond that," says Tom Delahunt, vice president of admissions and financial aid at Iowa's Drake University. "I've admitted students whose grade-point averages are below the usual for us, and I've rejected students whose averages were above that."

"For the last five years, we have noticed a distinct tendency for colleges to attribute more weight or emphasis to an applicant's interest in attending that particular school," says the NACAC's Hawkins. The reason is that ever greater numbers of applications, combined with the uncertain economy, have made it increasingly difficult for colleges to predict how many students who are sent acceptance letters in April actually will attend in September.

The lesson here is to emphasize why a particular college is the right school for you.

A student from Virginia, for instance, helped his chances at Hobart College in snowy upstate New York by emphasizing his preference for cold, wintry weather over the hot and humid climate of his native state, says Bloomquist. Likewise, in talking to professors at Hunter, Krilov-Egbert stressed his interest in becoming a teacher and told them the school's strong education program dovetailed with that desire. He also noted that the glass walkway connecting two buildings at Hunter College reminded him of an architectural feature described in one of his favorite novels. "That spoke to me, and it was really neat."

Drake's Delahunt makes a similar point.

"We welcome students who want to meet with us, and it makes an impression when they visit Drake and say, 'I realize my B-minus transcript's a little below your profile, but this is why I think I belong at Drake,'" he says. By contrast, "stealth" candidates -- those who send in an application without a visit or any personal contact -- are doing themselves a disservice, he says. "The academic profiles of two students being even, we will choose the one who has shown us the most interest."

Come across as an individual.

Sure, those essays can be a drag to write, but they present a key opportunity to differentiate yourself from other applicants. Getting good topics for your essays is especially important if your grades or board scores don't stand out, says Bloomquist, adding, "Don't let yourself appear just ho-hum."

"We're tired of reading the 'I hit the big shot to win the game' essay. We've read enough of those," says Delahunt. "We want to know what the student will bring to the table." A recitation of facts alone won't do the trick. Personalize the story into something only you can write. "If there has been a tragedy in the family -- as sad as that is -- we want to know, 'What now?' Where and how did you deal with that loss, and where did that take you?"

Eileen Wilkinson, an independent educational counselor with PrepMatters in Washington, D.C., had a client whose loss was a house fire that didn't injure anyone but did destroy everyone's clothing, including the student's prom dress. In the aftermath, the student started a community drive to gather used party dresses so that others, regardless of circumstance, would be able to find festive attire for their special occasions. Her essay focused not only on how the project got its impetus from her loss but on how she used it to help others and, in doing so, reaped emotional benefits of her own.

Says Delahunt, "That's the kind of story we like to hear."

And that's the real lesson for all B students who want to make it to the top:

Whatever your grade-point average, you are an individual, and you have strengths that belong only to you. Show them off to best advantage, and oh, the places you'll go.




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A+ Schools for B Students: First-rate Colleges Not as Selective as the Top Universities

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